Study Guide

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot Introduction

Poet Thomas Stearns Eliot—or T.S., as we like to call him—was a man of contradictions. His greatest works—The Waste Land, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and the poems that make up the Four Quartets—reflected the despair and desolation of the world after the World Wars. Eliot eschewed the London bars and cafes that attracted his fellow writers in favor of his prim and solitary office. Even his physical appearance was so gray and severe-looking that an interviewer once described him as "forbidding and austere, [like] the abbot of an ascetic order."

Yet, the same visitor also pronounced, "There is probably no kinder man in London today than T.S. Eliot."

T.S. Eliot Trivia

Eliot was a cat lover and kept several as pets. His whimsical poetry collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats was the basis for the long-running Broadway musical Cats. We like to believe that if he'd known the book would unleash generations of leotard-wearing Cats fanatics, he never would have published it.

George Orwell sent his manuscript of the novel Animal Farm to publishers Faber and Faber. Eliot, then an editor at the publishing house, rejected the novel as "not convincing" but added that Orwell's writing was of "fundamental integrity."

The Waste Land was published in 1922, the same year as James Joyce's novel Ulysses. When the two modernist vanguards met in Paris in 1920, Eliot found Joyce "arrogant." They later became friends.

The T.S. Eliot Prize is the most sought-after honor in British poetry. Founded in 1993, nearly thirty years after his death, the annual prize honors the best collection of new poetry published in England or Ireland that year. Eliot's widow Valerie, who was 37 years younger than her husband, donated the £15,000 prize money each year.

Eliot hated the fact that a bad teacher could destroy a student's love of poetry. A poor teacher initially turned Eliot off to one of Shakespeare's tragedies, and it took Marlon Brando to get him interested again. "I took a dislike to 'Julius Caesar' which lasted, I am sorry to say, until I saw the film of Marlon Brando and John Gielgud," he told an interviewer.

Eliot and Ezra Pound met as students at Oxford and were lifelong friends after that. Eliot called Pound "Mop," and Pound called Eliot "Possum."

T.S. Eliot Resources

Books

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)
Yes, it's a single poem, but this 434-line mammoth reads like a book. Published in the first volume of Eliot's journal Criterion, The Waste Land is Eliot's masterpiece, an impassioned cry against the desolation and horror of the post-World War I world. It is also probably one of the most difficult poems to read in the English language, referring to thirty-five different writers and six separate languages. Not for the weak.

T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920)
In this book of literary criticism, Eliot revisits the work of past literary critics and, with painstaking detail, points out why they were wrong about everyone from Dante to Hamlet to William Blake. His arguments are excellent, of course, but he sometimes comes off in these essays as the cocky guy in English class who won't shut up.

T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poem and Plays, 1909-1950 (1952)
For a literary legend, Eliot really didn't publish all that much, so the complete collection of his poetry and drama is not the unmanageable beast you might think. There are some gems in here, though—the bleak comedy of The Cocktail Party and the uplifting grace of "Ash Wednesday," in particular.

Peter Ackroyd, T.S. Eliot: A Life (1984)
Eliot refused to give biographers access to his private materials, so Peter Ackroyd had to write this one without quoting any letters or unpublished work. He still managed to write an interesting portrait of the poet, in a biography generally regarded as one of the best yet written about its subject.

Lyndall Gordon, T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (1999)
Biographer Gordon rewrote two previous biographies of Eliot and put them into this one, which explores the poet's private life. She concludes that Eliot was a literary genius with some serious personal flaws: he could at times be anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and cranky. This biography is a fascinating and unsparing look at the life of one of the English language's greatest poets.

A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: A Portrait of the Man and His Work, Volume I: The Young Genius, 1885-1920 (2007)
Ezra Pound, one of T.S. Eliot's best friends, played an instrumental role in his friend's literary career. Pound was an outstanding editor—Eliot called him il miglior fabbro, the finer craftsman—and nudged Eliot's poems into the masterpieces they are today. His life story offers insight into the modernist era and the creation of a poet.

Music

Assassino Nella Cattedrale
Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti wrote this opera based on Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot's play about the assassination of Thomas Beckett.

Cats
Cat lover T.S. Eliot published a volume of whimsical poems about the furry beasts, entitled Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Then, in the 1980s, British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber set the poems to music and made a mint with the musical Cats, which ran for about 400 years on Broadway. Now all we need is The Waste Land: The Musical!

T.S. Eliot Reading Poems and Choruses
Eliot's sonorous reading voice is music to our ears. Many recordings survive of his readings, and his deep, rich voice brings a new level of life to his poetry. This album includes "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "Ash Wednesday," and others.

Hommage à T.S. Eliot
The haunting images and beauty of Eliot's language have inspired many musicians. Composer Sofia Gubaidulina wrote this opera inspired by Eliot's Four Quartets. The words are based on his verse.

Introitus: T.S. Eliot in Memoriam
Russian composer Igor Stravinsky composed this chorale arrangement in honor of the late T.S. Eliot, whose poetry he greatly admired.

Genius in Words and Music
This rare gem features readings from a range of "genius" artists in literature and music. Tracks include Leonard Bernstein's orchestra playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and W.H. Auden reading Shakespeare's sonnets. Eliot contributes a reading of "A Game of Chess."

Images

T.S. Eliot, Take 1
A young poet.

Eliot the Poet
A portrait of the writer.

Eliot the Professor
A photograph of Eliot at the blackboard.

The Eliots at home
T.S. and his second wife, Valerie.

Eliot and Orwell
Eliot (seated) and writer George Orwell (standing behind him) together at the BBC.

Nobel Prize
Eliot accepting the Nobel Prize for literature.

The Waste Land
A page from Eliot's original draft of the poem, with his markings.

Eliot by Lewis
A portrait of the poet by his close friend Wyndham Lewis.

Movies

Tom and Viv (1994)
Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson star as T.S. Eliot and his mercurial first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Though legally married until Haigh-Wood's death in 1947, the couple separated in 1933 and Haigh-Wood was committed to a mental institution. The movie focuses on the early years of their marriage and Eliot's discovery of his wife's emotional imbalances. Willem Dafoe really captures Eliot's angular, morose appearance.

Murder in the Cathedral (1951)
This is the film adaptation of Eliot's 1953 play about the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. It also marks Eliot's one and only Hollywood turn—he voices the role of the Fourth Tempter, an off-stage character.

Ashes (1975)
This New Zealand film, inspired by Eliot's writing, stars Sam Neill as a priest questioning his faith. Eliot joined the Anglican Church in 1927 and always referred to himself as an "Anglo-Catholic." Read his poem "Ash Wednesday" to set the mood for the movie.

The Waste Land (1995)
As you can imagine, Eliot's poetry doesn't exactly translate easily to the silver screen. Irish actress Fiona Shaw, however, does a fascinating job bringing his words to life. This short film is based on her performance of The Waste Land, a one-woman show directed by Deborah Warner, in which she performs the entire 434-line poem.

Voices and Visions: T.S. Eliot (1995)
There aren't many documentaries about T.S. Eliot's life, but this hard-to-find video gets high marks for its insightful treatment of the poet and his poetry.

Websites

What the Thunder Said
This is an independent site dedicated to the memory of T.S. Eliot. It contains links to his work, a timeline of his life, and references to other Eliot resources on the web. It's a great place to start your research.

The Nobel Prize
This site contains Eliot's biography, along with links to works by and about him. Swedish Academy Permanent Secretary Anders Osterling's presentation speech lays out a clear argument for Eliot's significance to modern poetry. Eliot's acceptance speech is also archived here.

University of Toronto
The university has organized an online index of twenty Eliot poems, with links to the full texts and to Eliot's biography. The lines of the archived poems are numbered, a helpful tool not usually found on the Internet.

American Academy of Poets
The American Academy of Poets has fantastic web resources for students and poetry lovers alike. Eliot's entry includes links to his poems and prose (including audio clips of Eliot reading Eliot, and the cool TextFlows version of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"), as well as critical essays about Eliot.

T.S. Eliot: Test Your Knowledge!
What does the T.S. stand for? How does The Waste Land end? The Guardian newspaper has created this online quiz about the poet. No peeking at Shmoop for your answers!

The New Criterion
In 1922 Eliot founded the literary journal Criterion. In its seventeen years of existence, the journal became an influential (if somewhat pretentious) outlet for modernist voices like Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, and E.M. Forster. (It published Eliot's The Waste Land in its first issue.) In 1982, art critics Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball founded The New Criterion, a modern-day forum for arts and culture.

I Can Haz Waste Land?
From the All-Time Hall of Fame of "People With Too Much Time on Their Hands," we bring you The Waste Land, written in the style of the LOL Cats. We're not kidding.

Video & Audio

The Waste Land
Eliot reading his poem.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
Actor Michael Gough (Batman's Alfred!) reads Eliot's poem.

The Waste Land, Part Deux
There's no actual video of Eliot reading his poem, but animator Jim Clark does his best to create one. Creepy, funny, cool, or all three?

Four Quartets
Eliot reading from his Four Quartets.

Portishead and "Prufrock"
Someone has set Eliot's reading of "Prufrock" to the music of Portishead. We kind of like this.

"La Figlia Che Piange"
Eliot reads his poem (the title means "The Weeping Girl")

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
The site of The American Academy of Poets has a cool new way to experience this famous Eliot poem—flow text, a sequence in which the verses float artfully across the screen.

"The Journey of the Magi"
An audio recording of Eliot's poem.

"The Hollow Men"
A reading of Eliot's poem.

Primary Sources

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
Eliot's famous poem, with flow text.

The Waste Land
The poem that made Eliot a literary star in 1922.

"The Hollow Men"
The poem that predicts the world's end, "not with a bang but a whimper."

"The Possibility of a Poetic Drama"
Eliot's 1920 essay in The Dial.

"Tradition and the Individual Talent"
A 1919 essay by Eliot.

The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism
Eliot's classic essays of literary criticism.

Nobel Prize Presentation
Presentation speech, given by the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, before awarding the prize to Eliot.

Nobel Prize Acceptance
Eliot's speech as he accepted the award.

T.S. Eliot Talks About Himself
A 1953 interview with Eliot in The New York Times.

Obituary
Eliot's 1965 obituary in The New York Times.

"TIME 100"
A compelling 1950 portrait of Eliot from Time magazine.